The lazy sun beats down upon the azure waters, as I watch my convoy, named ‘Speedy Gonzales’, sail into the port of Seville. A small town of just over 4,000 souls, it is nevertheless home to thriving cotton, tobacco and orchard industries. With a mix of hospitals to tend the sick, taverns to take the edge off life in the colonies, and churches to keep them pious amongst the temptations of life in the tropics. Seville regularly sees ships coming and going, taking goods to far flung friendly ports, and bringing in exotic (and some mundane) wares for local consumption. Using the small local shipyard (the town isn’t big enough to yet warrant a shipbuilder), I’ve purchased sloops, schooners and barges to build my local merchant fleet. I’ve also gotten ships under construction in Spain’s administrative centre in Maracaibo. These, however, are not merchant vessels, but war ships, each with scores of guns and hundreds of crew members. These slow moving (and costly) ships are being built for one purpose only, to hunt and destroy the pesky British privateer who’s been raiding my convoys and eating into my bottom line. Welcome to Port Royale 4.
For anyone who’s ever watched the Onedin Line and thought that running your own sailing ship company, managing a fleet, and charting course from port to port to buy and sell wares (hopefully at a profit), would be fun, then Port Royale 4 is the game you’ve been looking for. The first Port Royale game in 8 years, Port Royale 4 gives players the entire Caribbean (nearly 12 million km2) to live out these fantasies in, and it looks amazing. Sun glints of azure waters, and lush green tropical islands abound. The level of detail is also extraordinary, with players being able to zoom right out to see a large portion of the map, with towns reduced to mere dots and a name tag, or seamlessly zoom in close enough to see individuals walking amongst the streets of the towns.
Set in the 1570s, the campaigns cast the player as governor of a small colony for one of four vying colonial superpowers: Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands, all vying for supremacy. From these rather humble beginnings, players have to build up trade routes, create and manage items to sell, manage and develop their town (and any other towns they will eventually control), protect trade from pirates and war (or engage in a bit of piracy when the mood takes), make a fortune in gold and, of course, try to win the Viceroy’s favour. Of course, if the campaign doesn’t take your fancy, you can also create your own custom scenario.
In Port Royale 4, trade is the main path to success, with each settlement producing and demanding a variety of different goods. In order to turn a profit, players have to buy low and sell high – simple enough in concept, except for the fact that, as stocks of specific goods in each settlement grows or dwindles, the price will change accordingly. While players can manually control each convoy, this is likely to get overwhelming very quickly. Fortunately, this is where trade routes come in. With a few clicks of a button, players can create as simple or as complex a trade route as they wish, which any convoys assigned to it will studiously follow.
For example, it’s possible to simply tell your ships to buy and sell whatever they have in their hold at each stop, provided the price is good (the AI automatically avoiding buying at a premium or selling at a loss). Or you can customise as much as you like, specifying how many units to buy and sell, at what price, and even which ports to prioritise certain goods for (especially important if you’re trying to supply particular items to the Viceroy’s city). Then there’s wind speed and direction. As you design each route, a preview will show the path the convoy will take. Clicking and dragging this will change the course, so you can take advantage of favourable winds, it often being far faster to go several miles out of your way in order to catch the wind, than to struggle against it. This is particularly important as all ships and captains extract a daily fee, so time really is money. This was brought home to me by comparing just what happened when I put two totally different convoys on the same route. The first was composed of speedy merchant vessels, with a high top speed and the ability to cruise fast in shallow waters. Their month-round trip netting nearly 30,000 gold in profit. Then I put two battleships on the same route. Despite having far more cargo capacity, their slower speed, and the need to crawl at an even slower pace along the coastline meant that, despite buying low and selling high, by the time the route was complete it had made a loss of over 67,000 gold pieces (ouch).
Then, without even considering piracy, privateering (why buy ships and goods when you can steal them?), and the turn-based battles (which can be auto-resolved if you wish), there’s town management (controlling, via infrastructure, population growth, satisfaction, and industry to name a few), expansion to other settlements, and fame (which is used to unlock various buildings, captains and other colonies and is acquired or lost by performing certain actions). Describing it on a page makes it sounds totally overwhelming, but, in reality it is amazingly straight-forward to grasp, easy to manage, and surprisingly relaxing. Having played through the tutorials, I was able to get a simple yet reasonable trade empire up and running with minimal effort, track which convoys were making a profit and which needed fine-tuning, expand to several other towns, and fend off several pirate attacks. In fact, I found the ebb and flow of Port Royale 4 (pun intended) to have a slightly mesmerizing effect, and it’s quite easy to lose several hours without even realising it.
In summary, Port Royale 4 is a gorgeous looking trade simulator, which manages to achieve the amazing feat of having both enough depth and detail for those who love to optimise every inch of their empire, yet still be accessible (and fun) for those who prefer to take a big-picture approach. If you like trade simulators, sailing ships and the idea of managing your own Caribbean empire appeals, then Port Royale 4 is definitely worth your consideration. ■